Q: How did you learn how to talk to strangers?
GROBEL: During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at UCLA I returned to my home on Long Island and got a job selling encyclopedias. It was very tough work because you had to knock on strange doors hoping someone would let you in so you could try and convince them they needed these reference books. After an intensive training period, I was put out in the field, but couldn’t get into a single house over the first three days. So I had to change my approach. I learned how to talk my way into someone’s house, how to get people to think positively, and within two weeks I wound up placing a lot of encyclopedias with people I didn’t know. What I didn’t realize then, but do now, is that those two summer weeks knocking on doors and entering into the lives of strangers taught me lessons I would use when I knocked at the doors of African sculptors, race car drivers, movie stars, novelists, politicians, and Nobel laureates to interview them. What I learned is that to talk to people, especially people you are meeting for the first time, you need to be prepared and you need to have confidence. You need to know how to open a conversation. How to carry it forward. How to lead. How to ad lib. How to listen. How to be a chameleon and submerge your ego. How to make people comfortable. How to act and to react to situations. How to be in control. How to keep things positive. How to stay on top of current events. How to ask off-beat questions. How to close.
Selling encyclopedias also gave me stories to tell at dinner parties and during lulls in one-on-one conversations. And stories are what you want to get from interviews. Because when a person has a good story to tell which you can use, people will read it.
Q: Do you do anything to help put your subject at ease in the beginning?
GROBEL: I try to win them over with small talk or gossip. Since I’ve interviewed so many people over the years, I find that there’s always someone I’ve met who might be of interest to the person I’m meeting for the first time. For a long time it was Brando: actors love to hear stories about Marlon Brando, and I had plenty of them. But for some, like Dolly Parton, it was ghost stories, and since I had lived in Africa for three years, I had enough tales of the supernatural that kept her attention. With Kim Basinger it was animals—she’s a big supporter of animal rights—so I told her about some of my pets. You do whatever it takes to turn an awkward situation—meeting someone for the first time to interview them—into something comfortable.
Q: How do you overcome the jitters before an interview?
GROBEL: I find that the more prepared I am the calmer I feel. Preparation begets confidence. And confidence emanates outward. I’m most nervous when I’m least prepared…and I don’t like that feeling, so I always try to be prepared. Nonetheless, jitters are healthy, it shows you care, draw from it; let your adrenaline put intensity behind your questions; let your subject know you want to do a good job. If you’re too jittery, then try to meditate before you ring the doorbell. Take some deep breaths. And keep in mind that the person you’re about to see is probably feeling the same way you are.
Q: So the stars are nervous too?
GROBEL: Many stars are nervous when a tape recorder is put on a table and their words are about to be captured. I saw fear in Robert De Niro’s face when we first met. I noticed how uncomfortable Al Pacino, Ray Romano, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger and Ava Gardner were. It altered the atmosphere in the room. It was almost as if my nervousness was transferred to them, and thus I felt lighter. Their discomfort calmed me.
Q: How do you interview someone famous without being intimidated by their celebrity?
GROBEL: That takes practice. I don’t know what it is about celebrities, but people do go gaga when they see one. Just remember that celebrities are often as nervous as you are about being interviewed. They don’t want to be exposed, to give up their mystique. And believe it or not, there are very few happy celebrities. If you’re in a good relationship and have friends you often laugh with, they probably envy you.
Q: Both Mel Gibson and Roman Polanski have been in the news lately. You interviewed both of them in the past, what was your impression of them then, and what do you think about them today?
GROBEL: I interviewed Polanski at his apartment in Paris back when I was doing research for my book on John Huston and his family. He was very insightful about working with Huston on Chinatown and about his friendship with Anjelica Huston. I saw him again at Camerimage in 2007, but that was more of a social occasion. What happened between him and that 13-year old girl that caused him so much trouble was misbehavior on his part, but he seemed to have paid a dear price for it by not being allowed back into the U.S. where he would have had the opportunity to make many films. He’s an older man now and I think the Swiss judge made the right decision to let him go free. He’s still confined to certain countries, but he’s an enormously creative man and I’d like to see him continue to work and make films.